By JILL EISENSTADT
The New York Times (04/07/2002)
THE twin towers came down silently. Or so it appeared on television. Of course, for those who were there, how it sounded mattered most. And, like many elements of that day’s events, some of the sounds were unthinkable.
Inside the buildings, many died without understanding what had happened. It had been loud, though, they all surely knew that. Michael Hingson, a blind man, famously escaped from his office on the 78th floor with the help of Roselle, his Seeing Eye dog. But simply to hear that terrorists had struck wasn’t enough. He needed more.
”He had tried hard to round out the picture in his head by going home and watching TV,” said Jamie York, who interviewed Mr. Hingson for National Public Radio. ”But he couldn’t do it. The sound wasn’t really there. So one of the things we did was play for him our audio recordings from outside.”
Mr. York, who also works with inmates for Legal Aid, was drawn to radio by an interest in the stories people tell, especially those who are marginalized.
”People are judged when they’re seen before they’re heard,” he said. ”It’s impossible to escape it. So radio always allows people to be heard first.”
Are we less aurally oriented than older generations? Are we born to respond more strongly to images than to sound? Joe Richman, the producer of NPR’s ”Radio Diaries,” thinks it is all a matter of the time in which we live. At the moment, he is collecting oral histories of the section of Lower Manhattan that was once known as Radio Row. Already dying by the late 60’s, these electronics shops were bulldozed to make way for the trade center.
”At its best,” Mr. Richman said, ”radio can be as intimate and evocative as someone whispering in your ear. But you have to be there to hear it.”
On Sept. 11 and the days that followed, this was what we spoke about, cellphone calls and voice-mail messages and whether we were there to hear them. We obsessed over haunting tales of brave goodbyes, terrifying and loving last words left on tape. We replayed the voices of those who had made contact to inquire about our safety, if not on our machines, then in our heads. We listened hard.
Attention quickly shifted to visual and print documentation. Photography and painting exhibitions sprung up overnight. The most amateur videotape of the towers, pre- and post-attack, were coveted and displayed, with some of the sounds on them, the curses especially, edited out.
Somehow we forgot how loud it had been, how we paced and listened to busy signals or lay in our beds, startled equally by the sound of fighter jets and thunderstorms, or stayed up late into the night fixated on new words like ”permanentize” and ”upsetment” coined by flustered newscasters.
It took a pair of Californians Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, a k a the Kitchen Sisters, independent radio producers — and their team of collaborators to remove the news media’s collective thumb from the mute button and start gathering the remaining bits of aural artifacts for what is now known as the Sonic Memorial Project and is already under way.
”There are so many different ways a life is measured in sound,” Ms. Nelson said. ”If you were to listen to a person’s answering machine messages at any given time, the amount you could learn about them would be astounding.”
The Kitchen Sisters, who with Jay Allison are the creators of the Peabody Award-winning NPR series ”Lost and Found Sound,” have presented places as diverse as Vietnamese nail shops, Route 66 and the entire 20th century on tape. It was only natural that they would approach ground zero, not as landscape but as soundscape.
Where were the voices and noises of the trade center, they wondered, and how best to capture them? How many messages, tapes and other recordings would be deleted if they did not act quickly? With the help of public radio, they set up a special phone line, (202) 408-0300, and began their ”Quest for Sound.”
Others also began collecting audio, though their efforts got little attention. After the attacks, Sally Herships set up a table in Union Square with a sign that read, ”Tell Me a Story,” and listened to all comers (www.documentnewyork.com/91101/). The Smithsonian sent e-mail messages to folklorists and journalists, asking them to go to the street and record the reactions of the public, just as Alan Lomax had after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Universities began taping oral histories related to the event.
Yet it was the Sonic Memorial Project volunteers who got in touch with executives at Verizon, urging them to override their computer systems and thereby save the voice-mail messages left at the trade center the morning of Sept. 11. (Victims and their families can retrieve these tapes by calling (800) 435-7986.)
It was the Sonic team, too, who asked the public not only for their stories, but also for trade center-related sound, even — especially — those not directly concerning the blast. They wanted the detritus of daily life: personal and business recordings, corporate and tourist videos, dictation tape, sound memories, tower broadcasts, concerts and events in the World Trade Center Plaza.
DOZENS of responses later, Mr. Allison, a curator of the project, recently offered a sampling of messages the phone line had received on an ”All Things Considered” broadcast. There’s Stephen Manning’s street recording of screams and chaos: ”Oh, my God! The entire building just fell down!” A woman’s description of her last conversation with her husband who died in the building, and a sad, lone wail from someone named Agnes in Virginia. To many, these solitary voices are more painfully compelling then anything television or film has offered in reaction to terrorism, and perhaps not surprisingly.
”Sound is more internal than pictures,” Ms. Nelson said. ”We’re more vulnerable to it, more defenseless. Think about it. As Jay likes to say, ‘You can’t close your ears, not easily.’ ”
Early feedback was overwhelmingly positive, focusing on life and history rather than death and demolition.
”Visuals focus on the towers as structures,” Mr. York said, ”but Davia and Nikki urge us to think of them more like bodies, breathing entities with which people, for better or worse, had a relationship.”
A woman called to describe the rhythmic thump-thump of the revolving doors, ”like heartbeats.” A man found it important to note the Mexican radio music heard regularly by the after-hours, mostly Latino cleaning crew. A jogger who frequented the path along the Hudson remembered the hubbub from the outdoor restaurants, how the clink of china and silverware reverberated off ”all that glass.”
Francisco Lopez, a self-described ”sonic architect,” offered acoustical recordings both minute and profound, from the heating ducts to the elevators. The tinkling of piano music from the Greatest Bar on Earth has been preserved, along with the last air check from WKTU and the fire safety recording made after the 1993 bombing.
Evidently people had not completely forgotten the importance of listening. They sent tapes of weddings and bar mitzvahs, circuses and trumpet players, video e-mail messages from kiosks on the observation deck, the joyful noise of a New Year’s Eve gala at the former Vista Hotel, children’s voices at a day care center.
These were the seeds of the Sonic Memorial Project, which aims to gather and weave these and other audio relics for historical preservation. Plans include a series of radio segments (three have already been broadcast) culminating in a longer broadcast, a Web site (www.sonicmemorial.org) and a physical sound installation as part of the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan.
Underappreciated artists have always created ingenious portraits of New York in sound. For decades, Tony Schwartz has recorded everything from children’s street games to taxi stories, including, in one inspired instance, all the sounds along 85th Street between the East and Hudson Rivers. Stephen Vitiello’s recordings of traffic, wind and swaying girders as heard from the 91st floor of the trade center were made in 1999, but only this year were included in the Whitney Biennial.
Still, the sheer magnitude of the Sonic Memorial Project, putting out a nationwide call for sound and using the Internet to archive it, is unprecedented.
Along with NPR and WNYC, collaborators include KQED-San Francisco, Transom.org, and the New York organizations Sound Portraits, Picture Projects, Creative Time and the Museum of Television and Radio.
It seems fitting that the envisioned setting for the Sonic Memorial’s final installation was once known as Radio Row. As Mr. Allison said on NPR to all those who had so enthusiastically responded to the project, ”Your calls spoke of the insistence of memory, of clamor and song, of the energetic hum of buildings, urgent whispered messages, the living vocal evidence of loving and grieving, all of it, an antidote to silence.”